Norbert Wiener

Norbert Wiener


Norbert Wiener was a U.S. mathematician, and a pioneer in the study of stochastic processes and noise especially in the field of electronic communication and control systems. He coined the term "cybernetics" in his book Cybernetics or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine (1948).


  • The best material model of a cat is another, or preferably the same, cat.
    • Philosophy of Science (1945) (with A. Rosenblueth)

  • The Advantage is that mathematics is a field in which one's blunders tend to show very clearly and can be corrected or erased with a stroke of the pencil. It is a field which has often been compared with chess, but differs from the latter in that it is only one's best moments that count and not one's worst. A single inattention may lose a chess game, whereas a single successful approach to a problem, among many which have been relegated to the wastebasket, will make a mathematician's reputation.
    • Ex-Prodigy: My Childhood and Youth (1964)

  • Mathematics is too arduous and uninviting a field to appeal to those to whom it does not give great rewards. These rewards are of exactly the same character as those of the artist. To see a difficult uncompromising material take living shape and meaning is to be Pygmalion, whether the material is stone or hard, stonelike logic. To see meaning and understanding come where there has been no meaning and no understanding is to share the work of a demiurge. No amount of technical correctness and no amount of labour can replace this creative moment, whether in the life of a mathematician or of a painter or musician. Bound up with it is a judgement of values, quite parallel to the judgement of values that belongs to the painter or the musician. Neither the artist nor the mathematician may be able to tell you what constitutes the difference between a significant piece of work and an inflated trifle; but if he is not able to recognise this in his own heart, he is no artist and no mathematician.
    • Ex-Prodigy: My Childhood and Youth (1964)

  • We mathematicians who operate with nothing more expensive than paper and possibly printers' ink are quite reconciled to the fact that, if we are working in an active field, our discoveries will commence to be obsolete at the moment that they are written down or even at the moment they are conceived. We know that for a long time everything we do will be nothing more than the jumping off point for those who have the advantage of already being aware of our ultimate results. This is the meaning of the famous apothegm of Newton, when he said, "If I have seen further than other men, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants".
    • I am a Mathematician (1964)

  • I am terribly depressed. How are things going?
    • First words to Karl Wolfgang Deutsch, on first meeting him, as quoted in "Some Memories of Norbert Wiener: The Man and His Thoughts" by K.W. Deutsch in IEEE Transactions on Systems, Man and Cybernetics (1975)

  • Scientific discovery consists in the interpretation for our own convenience of a system of existence which has been made with no eye to our convenience at all.
    One of the chief duties of a mathematician in acting as an advisor to scientists is to discourage them from expecting too much of mathematicians.
    • As quoted in Comic Sections (1993) by D MacHale

Cybernetics: or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine (1948)

  • The terms "black box" and "white box" are convenient and figurative expressions of not very well determined usage. I shall understand by a black box a piece of apparatus, such as four-terminal networks with two input and two output terminals, which performs a definite operation on the present and past of the input potential, but for which we do not necessarily have any information of the structure by which this operation is performed. On the other hand, a white box will be similar network in which we have built in the relation between input and output potentials in accordance with a definite structural plan for securing a previously determined input-output relation.
    • PREFACE. page xi. (Footnote 1)

  • As to sociology and anthropology, it is manifest that the importance of information and communication as mechanisms of organization proceeds beyond the individual into the community. On the other hand, it is completely impossible to understand social communities such as those of ants without a thorough investigation of their means of communication, and we were fortunate enough to have the aid of Dr. Schneirla in this matter. For the similar problems of human organization, we sought help from the anthropologists Drs. Bateson and Margaret Mead; while Dr. Morgenstern of the Institute for Advanced Study was our advisor in the significant field of social organization belongng to economic theory. His very important joint book on games with Dr. von Neumann, by the way, represents a most interesting study of social organization from the point of view of methods closely related to, although distinct from, the subject matter of cybernetics. Dr. Lewin and others represnted the newer work on the theory of opinion sampling and the practice of opinion making, and Dr. F. C. S. Northrup was interested in assaying the philosophical significance of our work.
    • INTRODUCTION. p.18-19

  • As I have already hinted, one of the directions of work which the realm of ideas of the Macy meetings has suggested concerns the importance of the notion and the technique of communication in the social system. It is certainly true that the social system is an organization like the individual, that it is bound together by a system of communication, and that it has a dynamics in which circular processes of a feedback nature play an important part. This is true, both in the general fields of anthropology and sociology and in the more specific field of economics; and the very important work, which we have already mentioned, of von Neumann and Morgenstern on the theory of games enters into this range of ideas. On this basis, Drs. Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead have urged me, in view of the intensely pressing nature of the sociological and economic problems of the present age of confusion, to devote a large part of my energies to the discussion of this side of cybernetics.
    • INTRODUCTION. p.24

  • A group may have more group information or less group information than its members. A group of non-social animals, temporarily assembled, contains very little group information, even though its members may possess much information as individuals. This is because very little that one member does is noticed by the others and is acted on by them in a way that goes further in the group. On the other hand, the human organism contains vastly more information, in all probability, than does any one of its cells. There is thus no necessary relation in either direction between the amount of racial or tribal or community information and the amount of information available to the individual.

  • As in the case of the individual, not all the information which is available to the race at one time is accessible without special effort. There is a well-known tendency of libraries to become clogged by their own volume; of the sciences to develop such a degree of specialization that the expert is often illiterate outside his own minute specialty. Dr. Vannevar Bush has suggested the use of mechanical aids for the searching through vast bodies of material. These probably have their uses, but they are limited by the impossibility of classifying a book under an unfamiliar heading unless some particular person has already recognized the relevance of that heading for that particular book. In the case where two subjects have the same technique and intellectual content but belong to widely separated fields, this still requires some individual with an almost Leibnizian catholicity of interest.

The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society (1954)

  • Any labor which competes with slave labor must accept the economic conditions of slave labor.

  • What many of us fail to realize is that the last four hundred years are a highly special period in the history of the world. The pace at which changes during these years have taken place is unexampled in earlier history, as is the very nature of these changes. This is partly the results of increased communication, but also of an increased mastery over nature, which on a limited planet like the earth, may prove in the long run to be an increased slavery to nature. For the more we get out of the world the less we leave, and in the long run we shall have to pay our debts at a time that may be very inconvenient for our own survival.
    • II. Progress and Entropy. p.46

  • Progress imposes not only new possibilities for the future but new restrictions. It seems almost as if progress itself and our fight against the increase of entropy intrinsically must end in the downhill path from which we are trying to escape.
    • II. Progress and Entropy. p.46-47

  • May we have the courage to face the eventual doom of our civilization as we have the courage to face the certainty of our personal doom. The simple faith in progress is not a conviction belonging to strength, but one belong to acquiescence and hence to weakness.
    • II. Progress and Entropy. p.47

  • Until we in the community have made up our minds that what we really want is expiation, or removal, or reform, or or the discouragement of potential criminals, we shall get none of these, but only a confusion in which crime breeds more crime.
    • VI. Law and Communication. p.110

  • That country will have the greatest security whose informational and scientific situation is adequate to meet the demands that may be put on it—the country in which it is fully realized that information is important as a stage in the continuous process by which we observe the outer world, and act effectively upon it. In other words, no amount of scientific research, carefully recorded in books and papers, and then put into our libraries with labels of secrecy, will be adequate to protect us for any length of time in a world where the effective level of information is perpetually advancing.
    • VII. Communication, Secrecy, and Social Policy. p.121-122

  • We are in the position of the man who has only two ambitions in life. One is to invent the universal solvent which will dissolve any solid substance, and the second is to invent the universal container which will hold any liquid. Whatever this inventor does, he will be frustrated.
    • VII. Communication, Secrecy, and Social Policy. p.129

  • What sometimes enrages me and always disappoints and grieves me is the preference of great schools of learning for the derivative as opposed to the original, for the conventional and thin which can be duplicated in many copies rather than the new and powerful, and for arid correctness and limitation of scope and method rather than for universal newness and beauty, wherever it may be seen.
    • VIII. Role of the Intellectual and the Scientist. p.135

  • The sense of tragedy is that the world is not a pleasant little nest made for our protection, but a vast and largely hostile environment, in which we can achieve great things only by defying the gods; and that this defiance inevitably brings its own punishment.
    • X. Some Communication Machines and Their Future. p.184

  • A faith which we follow upon orders imposed from outside is no faith, and a community which puts its dependence upon such a pseudo-faith is ultimately bound to ruin itself because of the paralysis which the lack of a healthy growing science imposes upon it.
    • XI. Language, Confusion, and Jam. p.193

Quotes about Wiener

Wiener's being both absent-minded and near-sighted has produced many famous anecdotes.
  • His office was a few doors down the hall from mine. He often visited my office to talk to me. When my office was moved after a few years, he came in to introduce himself. He didn't realize I was the same person he had frequently visited; I was in a new office so he thought I was someone else.
    • Phyllis L. Block, graduate administrator at the MIT Department of Mathematics

  • He went to a conference and parked his car in the big lot. When the conference was over, he went to the lot but forgot where he parked his car. He even forgot what his car looked like. So he waited until all the other cars were driven away, then took the car that was left.

  • When he and his family moved to a new house a few blocks away, his wife gave him written directions on how to reach it, since she knew he was absent-minded. But when he was leaving his office at the end of the day, he couldn't remember where he put her note, and he couldn't remember where the new house was. So he drove to his old neighborhood instead. He saw a young child and asked her, "Little girl, can you tell me where the Wieners moved?" "Yes, Daddy," came the reply, "Mommy said you'd probably be here, so she sent me to show you the way home".
    • Anecdote as recounted by Howard Eves

  • One day he was sitting in the campus lounge, intensely studying a paper on the table. Several times he'd get up, pace a bit, then return to the paper. Everyone was impressed by the enormous mental effort reflected on his face. Once again he rose from his paper, took some rapid steps around the room, and collided with a student. The student said, "Good afternoon, Professor Wiener." Wiener stopped, stared, clapped a hand to his forehead, said "Wiener — that's the word," and ran back to the table to fill the word "wiener" in the crossword puzzle he was working on.
    • Anecdote as recounted by Howard Eves

  • He drove 150 miles to a math conference at Yale University. When the conference was over, he forgot he came by car, so he returned home by bus. The next morning, he went out to his garage to get his car, discovered it was missing, and complained to the police that while he was away, someone stole his car.
    • Anecdote as recounted by Howard Eves

  • Even measured by Wiener's standards Cybernetics is a badly organised work — a collection of misprints, wrong mathematical statements, mistaken formulas, splendid but unrelated ideas, and logical absurdities. It is sad that this work earned Wiener the greater part of his public renown, but this is an afterthought. At that time mathematical readers were more fascinated by the richness of its ideas than by its shortcomings.

  • In appearance and behaviour, Norbert Wiener was a baroque figure, short, rotund, and myopic, combining these and many qualities in extreme degree. His conversation was a curious mixture of pomposity and wantonness. He was a poor listener. His self-praise was playful, convincing and never offensive. He spoke many languages but was not easy to understand in any of them. He was a famously bad lecturer.

  • As I near the end of my personal recollections of life at M.I.T., it is impossible to refrain from relating my eye-witness stories about a brilliant man, Norbert Wiener, and his lovable eccentricities. I took two semester courses under Professor Wiener: one was Fourier Series and Fourier Integrals, and the other was, I believe, Operational Calculus. It is vivid in my memory that Professor Wiener would always come to class without any lecture notes. He would first take out his big handkerchief and blow his nose very vigorously and noisily. He would pay very little attention to his class and would seldom announce the subject of his lecture. He would face the blackboard, standing very close to it because he was extremely near-sighted. Although I usually sat in the front row, I had difficulty seeing what he wrote. Most of the other students could not see anything at all. It was most amusing to the class to hear Professor Wiener saying to himself, "This was very wrong, definitely." He would quickly erase all he had written down. He would then start all over again, and sometimes murmur to himself, "This looks all right so far." Minutes later, "This cannot be right either," and he would rub it all out again. This on- again, off-again process continued until the bell signaled the end of the hour. Then Professor Wiener would leave the room without even looking at his audience.
    • Recollections of a Chinese Physicist by C.K. Jen (1990)

  • As a human being Wiener was above all stimulating. I have known some who found the stimulus unwelcome. He could offend publicly by snoring through a lecture and then asking an awkward question in the discussion, and also privately by proffering information and advice on some field remote from his own to an august dinner companion. I like to remember Wiener as I once saw him late at night in Magdalen College, Oxford, surrounded by a spellbound group of undergraduates, talking, endlessly talking. We are all the poorer that he now talks no more.

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